Character as moral fiction

There is a growing interest in virtue ethics. For example, studies with Positive Psychology and Leadership often use the term virtuousness to refer to a kind of high performance or excellence. Mark Alfano’s book; Character as Moral Fiction places itself within this ongoing debate that has roots going back to Aristotle’s.

In short Alfano’s thesis is as follows: if you tell a person that he or she is honest or respectful, the person will be motivated to act in accordance herewith. His idea is strongly related to the self-fulfilling prophecies that we associate with the placebo effect, where the belief involved in placebos is that “they are true because they are announced, not announced because they are true.” 

 Alfano’s argument is, therefore, not utilitarian, i.e. because it produces good consequences; nor deontological, i.e. because it is based on an absolute rule of moral behavior. Instead Alfano injects moral philosophy with the idea that fictional inventions can improve us morally. What Alfano does is that he quite ingeniously takes a well-known phenomenon that words can create belief or even obedience to certain virtues, e.g. something similar is seen in personal selection, appreciative inquiry, and recognition management. The point is that a description (or postulate, even) can affect us.

To begin with Alfano distinguishes between normative theory (e.g. what is good and virtuous), moral psychology (e.g. describing and explaining human conduct), and moral technology that “attempts to bridge the gap between moral psychology and normative theory by proposing ways in which we … can become more as we should be.” Thus, Alfano doesn’t interfere with the moral categories or the definitions of moral virtuous. Instead he presents us with a moralizing pep-talk that shows that we can do more of what is already defined as being virtuous. It’s an optimistic book.

A large part of the book reads like a dense literature study that also aims at defending his thesis — especially against the challenge of the situation.  Alfano’s contribution to this debate is that he tries to change the relative strength between the agent, the social environment, and the environment as such. Instead of letting a specific situation or context affect us, it is better to create individual expectations that would affect the outcome. Hereby he also adds to the triad within social psychology. Philip Zimbardo, for example, refers to the individual, the situation and the system. To put is simple: Zimbardo tries to avoid vicious behavior by creating a virtuous situation, whereas Alfano tries to overcome a potential bad situation by stimulating the individual towards doing good by saying that he or she already is good — it is here fiction can play a role since the positive characteristic of the person may only be an invention.  

Alfano defines a “factious virtue” as a creative making or calibration. For example, a person “may not be virtuous in fact“; however, a “tactically deployed fictions result in factitious virtue.” The idea is very attractive. Yet, I still think that Alfano is too limited in his use of fiction and the potential to create new experiences, perhaps even provide us with new concepts by which to live. 

Let us imagine a young academic. Just like anyone else, he or she is subjected to the slogans of positive thinking that dictates more efficiency and personal growth, just because he or she can. Based on Alfano’s thesis the young academic will live up to this positive description of his or her factitious virtuous, yet these virtuous might also be the ones that will lead the same person straight to depression, anxiety, and stress. Our young academic might not be doing what he or she really can, because he or she is being persuaded or motivated into playing the role of being good according to the ideals defined by someone else, i.e. efficient according to what objectives; growth according to what ideals? 

The problem with the thesis, therefore, is not whether being honest and generous are attractive characteristics, but how one might live out these virtues even if they contrast with the ideals of the majority, i.e. with the norms of our present performance society. This debate is absent in Alfano’s work.

Thus, the core challenge for Alfano is, as I see it, whether we actually know what is good beforehand or not. Alfano assumes that we do know beforehand. However, What if the context is not given? What if lying actually is the only way for a person to remain generous? His use of fiction is restricted by what is already defined as being good, right and virtuous. Yet, the most serious moral and ethical challenges today are so due to their uncertainties.

 Regardless of my interventions, this book is what both moral psychology and normative theory needs: a fresh and courageous approach. It is especially enriching for students of moral psychology, because the author generously refers to so many studies, but it could also serve the vast theory within management and organizational studies that tries to convert people. 

Alfano’s “factious virtue” proposes how we might become more as we should be. He wants to guide us, but as with any guide, one should be courteous in respect of the objectives.

First published in Metapsychology, 2014.

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